Tuesday, March 13, 2007

On Explaining Religion

D.W. Congdon has an excellent post at The Fire and the Rose concerning the recent New York Times feature, Darwin's God, which discussed scientific explanations for the origin of religion. According to the article, evolutionary biologists are currently divided on whether religion is "an evolutionary adaptation or neurological accident." Of course, the possibility that religion is a legitimate response to a preexistent reality - namely, God - is not seriously considered by Times Science section (nothing new here...).

These are matters that I've dealt with before (see here and here), but D.W. phrases the question in a very concise manner: "Is explaining religion the same thing as explaining it away?" Clearly the scientists behind this kind of research think so. They assume that if religion can be shown to arise from faulty brain chemistry or evolutionary selection, then it will lose it's strange grip on humanity. Religion will be brought into the nexus of determinative causality, and thus will have to surrender it claims to transcendence. As D.W. points out, this strategy of "explain and dismiss" has already been applied to the Bible and the church: "it is rather common nowadays to hear people speak of the political context in which, say, the Bible came into being or the institution of the Church arose—as if explaining the political climate is the same as explaining away the Bible and the church."

But explaining is not the same as understanding. Moreover, it seems to me that the "explain and dismiss" strategy is only effective if one shares the assumption - common among scientists - that historical and contingent events can never serve as the basis for absolute truth (Lessing's ditch, once again). Based on this assumpton, if the Bible (or religion itself) can be shown to have originated through a historical process, involving thousands of contingent events, then we cannot consider it a reliable source of truth. Only the "eternal truths of reason" are really true. Thus, scientists naturally think that theological truths about God, if they were to exist, would take the form of generalized theorems or equations - that is, of pure abstraction. The idea that God could reveal himself in concrete historical events and in human language is simply absurd to them, since the world and its history are considered mere objects in a closed system, incapable of carrying divine truth (interestingly, this is modern science's equivalent of the Calvinist motto: finitum non capax infiniti). By creating an artificial conflict between God's transcendence and his immanent actions, science only considers two theist positions legitimate: pantheism or deism.

But Christianity, which holds the Incarnation as its central truth, has never regarded God's immanence and transcendence as being incompatible, and thus asserts that God speaks to his creatures through his creation. David Bentley Hart makes this point in his devastating review of another attempt to explain religion in purely natural terms - Daniel Dennett's book, Breaking the Spell. Hart writes:
Of course religion is a natural phenomenon. Who would be so foolish as to deny that? Religion is ubiquitous in human culture and obviously constitutes an essential element in the evolution of society, and obviously has itself evolved. It is as natural to humanity as language or song or mating rituals. Dennett may imagine that such a suggestion is provocative and novel, and he may believe that there are legions of sincere souls out there desperately committed to the notion that religion itself is some sort of miraculous exception to the rule of nature, but, in either case, he is deceived.

For one thing, it does not logically follow that, simply because religion as such is a natural phenomenon, it cannot become the vehicle of divine truth, or that it is not in some sense oriented toward a transcendent reality. To imagine that it does so follow is to fall prey to a version of the genetic fallacy, the belief that one need only determine the causal sequence by which something comes into being in order to understand its nature, meaning, content, uses, or value....

Certainly the Christian should be undismayed by the notion that religion is natural "all the way down." Indeed, it should not matter whether religion is the result of evolutionary imperatives, or of an inclination toward belief inscribed in our genes and in the structure of our brains, or even (more fantastically) of memes that have impressed themselves on our minds and cultures and languages. All things are natural. But nature itself is created toward an end-its consummation in God-and is informed by a more eminent causality-the creative will of God-and is sustained in existence by its participation in the being that flows from God, who is the infinite wellspring of all actuality. And religion, as a part of nature, possesses an innate entelechy and is oriented like everything else toward the union of God and his creatures. Nor should the Christian expect to find any lacunae in the fabric of nature, needing to be repaired by the periodic interventions of a cosmic maintenance technician. God’s transcendence is absolute: He is cause of all things by giving existence to the whole, but nowhere need he act as a rival to any of the contingent, finite, secondary causes by which the universe lives, moves, and has its being in him.
In other words, the attempt to discredit religion by describing it as "only" a natural phenomenon rests on a dualism that is totally alien to Christianity. We need not choose between natural and revealed religion, as the Word of God is always clothed in the earthen vessels of flesh and blood, bread and wine, history and language. Truth is not to be found in a higher plane of purity and abstraction, divorced from nature and history. Instead, "truth comes before us coarse, as do the signs of nature - without actually being this way. Lies, on the contrary, are threshed and polished for the eye, as works of art." (Hamann)


Andy said...

I was thinking about this just the other day. It seems to me that given that God exists, there could be a distinct evolutionary advantage in being able to recognize this fact. I don't really have a problem with the idea that certain parts of our brain dispose us to religion.

I'd be curious to hear what D.W. thought of the second part of your post, particularly with regard to the Hart quote. As a die-hard Barthian, he should respond, "Nein!"

Thomas Adams said...

Hey Andy – Thanks for the comment. D.W. may well object to certain aspects of my post (especially the D.B. Hart quote), but it was not my intention to endorse any form of natural theology. Barth himself once said that “We are not denying the statement that God holds the whole world in his hands, including all the individuals, events, and powers, and that he reveals himself in them.” He also famously remarked that “God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog.” I think Hart would wholeheartedly agree that statement. The issue is not so much about natural theology, but about giving priority to the concrete and natural over the general and abstract.

My concern is less with Barth and more with scientific assumptions about what religion must entail. Scientists often think that religious faith, in order to be “valid”, requires supernatural events that lie above and beyond the immanent realm. This is because they have constructed an artificial distinction between God’s transcendence and immanence that allows for no “middle ground”. Hence their belief that they can disprove religion by showing that it is related in some fashion to the material world, whether it be politically, socially, or biologically (for them, anything that’s immanent cannot be transcendent). Interestingly, many modern theologians, particularly existentialists like Bultmann, have capitulated to these false assumptions in order to appease modern man. Bultmann and modern science agree that nature and history are closed off from God, who is too transcendent (if he exists at all) to interact with the world. Thus, for Bultmann and the scientists, revelation must always be an alien presence, a sort of bolt from on high, that only makes itself felt in man’s subjectivity. Faith is either a psychological anomaly, or a face-to-face encounter between the individual and God in which the rest of the world is simply not involved. Just as Lessing sought the universal truths of reason, Bultmann tried to demythologize the gospel in order to extract universal truths of “existence.” But, in my opinion, this doesn’t do justice to the particularity and earthiness of the Incarnation or the Church, and it has the unfortunate consequence of surrendering the entire “real world” to science.

Andy said...

I certainly see your main points with regard to science and religion. I just don't see how we can keep natural theology out of this discussion. But maybe I just misunderstand what is meant by natural theology.

If we reject Bultmann's position that "revelation must always be an alien presence" (and I think we should) then don't we necessarily posit a point of contact?

D.W. Congdon said...

Thanks for the publicity and an excellent post, Thomas!

I have to say, I really like Hart's review. I have my differences with him -- whether or not "die-hard Barthian" is either accurate or sympathetic is another question -- but I do not think Hart needs to be incompatible with my theological perspective. What is missing from Hart's last paragraph in the quote is simply a notion of Christ's definitive and unique mediation through the assumption of flesh. Hart definitely emphasizes the centrality of Christ, but he really lacks a strong notion of Christ's mediation -- and this should raise red alarms for any Protestant, Barthian or otherwise.

That said, I think Bultmann is entirely right to suggest that revelation is an alien presence. To say that religion is natural is not to say that God is natural. To say that Scripture is natural is not to say that God's Word is natural. We need to be careful in our distinctions.